The end of a standoff between India and China over a remote road on the Doklam plateau has prompted a vibrant discussion about the lessons learned. The emerging consensus is that India “won” and China “lost.” India’s willingness to challenge China is even viewed as providing a model that other states can use to counter Chinese coercion. If others stand up, China will back down.
Nevertheless, this consensus is misplaced. And the sports analogy of winning and losing obscures much more than it reveals.
To start, it remains unclear that India “won.” From India’s point of view, the status quo ante of June 2017 was restored, a victory. Yet from China’s perspective, Indian forces withdrew from Chinese territory (also claimed by Bhutan, but not by India). Moreover, on the ground at the site of the confrontation, Indian forces pulled back first. Meanwhile, Chinese forces remain in Doklam, even if Beijing chose not to press ahead with the road extension that sparked the standoff.
There is also no indication from Chinese or Indian statements that China had to make any concessions to convince India to withdraw its troops. The PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson underscored that China’s claims and behavior will not change, noting that China would “continue with its exercise of sovereign rights” in the disputed area. In other words, China will still conduct patrols in Doklam and maintain the portions of road that had been built before the standoff started in early June.
China also had other reasons to seek de-escalation, none of which can be attributed to India’s intervention. An active confrontation would have cast a pall over the upcoming BRICS summit that China is hosting in Xiamen in early September. And on the eve of the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th Party Congress, Xi Jinping likely wanted to avoid any risky escalation that could affect the significant transfer of power that will occur. Once these events pass, however, China may be less constrained and more willing to tolerate risk on the border with India.
Moreover, even if India scored a tactical win by thwarting China’s road extension, it may have lost at the strategic level. Ironically perhaps, India’s actions underscored to China the importance of enhancing its military position in the Doklam bowl. Before the standoff in June, China’s permanent presence in the area had been quite limited. China had maintained a road in the area for several decades, but did not garrison any forces. In contrast, India has maintained and developed a forward post at Doka La adjacent to Doklam.
Now that India has chosen to confront China at Doklam, however, China may well seek to rectify this tactical imbalance of forces. In fact, the Chinese spokesperson suggested a move in this direction by saying China would continue to station forces (zhushou), most likely a reference to troops deployed to Doklam after the standoff began. If China does this, it would likely build facilities farther away from India’s position at Doka La, making it more challenging for India to intervene and block China next time. When India challenged China’s construction crews in June, it only had to move its forces a hundred meters from the existing border. In the future, India may be faced with the uncomfortable choice of deciding whether to risk much more to deny China a greater presence farther inside Doklam or to accept it. This will be a tough decision for any leader to make. Even if India won this round, it may not win the next one.
One could even make the case that China achieved some of its political objectives, whose importance overshadows the standoff over the road. Bhutan, always worried about being caught between its much larger neighbors, may become more reluctant to test China on territorial issues to avoid being drawn into a conflict between India and China. Despite the triumphalism from some voices in New Delhi, India likely learned that Beijing does not back down immediately or without sustained effort. The disengagement at Doklam took more than ten weeks of diplomacy, much longer than previous confrontations along the China-India border in 2013 and 2014 , which lasted only a few weeks.
The Indian intervention also does not offer a “model” that other states can apply elsewhere for countering China’s assertiveness. To start, India enjoyed tactical superiority at the site of the standoff, leveraging its well-developed forward position at Doka La and reserves of much larger forces based permanently in Sikkim. These advantages likely played a role in limiting China’s response. Moreover, if China seeks to address the tactical imbalance in Doklam in the future, India may be less successful using the same method to deter China again. Furthermore, many other states facing China in territorial disputes lack such tactical superiority precisely where it matters.
Other elements of the Indian intervention cannot be easily replicated, either. Recall that India justified its action based on its commitments to Bhutan under a 2007 treaty. It is unclear whether and to what degree third parties not bound by such obligations would seek to intervene directly in China’s sovereignty disputes with its neighbors. Doing so would significantly raise the stakes in their own bilateral relations with China.
Take, for example, Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. The Doklam “model” would suggest that if China sought to build a permanent presence on the reef, the United States could stop Chinese land reclamation by intervening on behalf of the Philippines to block Chinese dredgers. Yet unlike India’s open support of Bhutan’s claim to sovereignty over Doklam, the United States maintains a position of neutrality on the sovereignty of the contested land features in the South China Sea and around the world.
Any U.S. intervention at Scarborough, then, would require that the United States alter this policy of neutrality. But changing this policy would have far-reaching implications for the U.S. role in all of China’s territorial disputes. The United States would potentially shoulder a raft of new security commitments that it may not be able to meet, especially if states opposing China in territorial disputes actively seek greater material support from Washington. China would view such a change in U.S. policy as a significant challenge to all its territorial disputes with neighbors and react harshly to probe U.S. resolve, perhaps even taking limited military action to deter the United States from carrying out its new policy. For China’s leaders, the defense of territorial claims is intertwined with the legitimacy of the Communist Party.
More broadly, the frame of winning and losing is misplaced. The genius of the Doklam disengagement is that diplomats defined it in narrow and specific terms, focusing only on the forces at the “face-off site.” Larger issues, such as the location of the tri-junction between China, India and Bhutan, along with China and Bhutan’s competing claims to Doklam, were left off the table. By not disclosing the terms under which the standoff ended, diplomats also allowed each other to save face.
The narrow definition of the issue permitted troops to disengage without letting the more complicated problems prevent de-escalation. Two nuclear-armed powers avoided letting a small confrontation escalate into a much wider and more dangerous conflict. Given that China will continue to press its territorial claims against India and Bhutan, as well as in the East and South China Seas, policymakers should be wary of learning the wrong lessons from the disengagement at Doklam. Rather than interpreting events as simply points on a scoreboard for one country or another, the focus should shift to how diplomacy can be employed to avoid military confrontations and reduce opportunities for conflict.
M. Taylor Fravel is an associate professor of political science and member of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His studies international security, with a focus on China’s foreign and security policies. He can be followed on Twitter @fravel.
Image: Michael Foley, CC